Found: A surprising new mechanism behind a process that takes place throughout the universe

As a collaborative research institution, PPPL works closely with leading research centers throughout the country and around the world. Now a collaboration between scientists at the University of Michigan and PPPL has shown how the process that underlies solar flares and the northern lights can take place in fusion experiments through a surprising new mechanism.

The process, called magnetic reconnection, occurs when the magnetic field lines in hot, charged plasma gas come together and violently snap apart. Such reconnection takes place in plasmas throughout the universe.

In a recent paper in Physical Review Letters, the researchers used computer modeling to uncover how reconnection also can occur in the very hot and very dense plasmas created by laser compression of pellets of hydrogen fuel.  Such plasmas are used for inertial confinement fusion (ICF), which represents an alternative form of experimentation to the magnetic-confinement fusion studied at PPPL.

A unique feature of ICF is that the magnetic field lines that produce reconnection can be carried by flows of heat, rather than flows of mass. “Essentially, what we found is a completely new magnetic reconnection mechanism,” said Alexander Thomas, assistant professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences at the University of Michigan and lead author of the paper. Joining Thomas in the work was Archis Joglekar, a Michigan doctoral student in nuclear engineering and radiological sciences.

PPPL contributions to the study came from Amitava Bhattacharjee, head of the Theory Department at PPPL and a Princeton University professor of astrophysical sciences, and PPPL physicist Will Fox.

 

 

 

 

 

27. March 2014 by John Greenwald
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The Fusionista: A front page evening

DT Anniversary003F

(Above: This poster with cutouts shaped like a light bulb and letters was used to signal successful fusion shots to observers on Dec. 9, 1993)

The fascinating science that is at the heart of everything at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) keeps hundreds of staff members busy. For the past week or so, though, with the approach of a major anniversary, Lab matters have seemed especially charged.

On Dec. 9, 1993, a team of researchers at PPPL produced world record-breaking levels of fusion energy in a one-of-a-kind experimental device called the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor (TFTR). I was on-site, too, not as a member of the Lab staff, but as a science reporter for The Star-Ledger of Newark, New Jersey’s largest newspaper.

On that long ago evening at PPPL, I had serious competition. I was one of a handful of reporters who had shown an interest in PPPL for some time who was invited to cover the event. Others in the general press would be drawn by our stories and a public television video to cram into a news conference the next day for this world-class story. I stood in the main lobby of the Lab’s main administration building and met two other reporters, and we moved to the auditorium to wait for news from the TFTR control room. A monitor in the auditorium displayed images of activity from the packed control room via a camera located there.  Ron Davidson, PPPL’s director at the time, and Dale Meade, then the Lab’s deputy director, gave animated play-by-plays to the auditorium audience of what could be seen on the television interspersed with viewgraphs on fusion. In addition to the press, staff members of PPPL – some of whom brought their children – perched there, taking it in.

The late Malcolm Browne of the New York Times was covering the experiment. He had earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his bulletins from the Vietnam War.  When I met him that evening, he was enjoying a grand second act as a front-page science writer. He was quiet and nice. I also spoke as we worked with Boyce Rensberger of the Washington Post. His book, How the World Works, with its deft explanations of formidable concepts such as Einstein’s theories of relativity and the field of quantum mechanics, made it a go-to source for science writers. He was outgoing and nice.

Any story from this event loomed as a wonderful capper for my year – one already loaded with stories of worldwide interest. In June 1993, eight years into my stint as my newspaper’s science editor, I wrote about Princeton Professor Andrew Wiles’ wondrous announcement that he proved a 300-year-old math problem known as Fermat’s Last Theorem. And, on October 13, 1993, only two months before the fusion experiment, I trailed Princeton Professor Joseph Taylor the day the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in physics to Taylor and Russell Hulse. Hulse was a former graduate student of Taylor’s who had risen to be a physicist at PPPL. They were honored for their 1974 discovery of a new type of pulsar, a find that opened up new possibilities for the study of gravitation.

On that night at PPPL, I was on edge. I knew I could report and write the story. The problem rested with my computer. The newspaper was experimenting with portable computers in those days and my model was a doozy. Static electricity brought about by a movement as slight as a shuffle on an office carpet provoked tremors in the casing and blackouts on the screen. Even if you managed to write a story and hold on to it, the device’s manual phone hook-up – a black plastic molded doodad that fit very imperfectly on an end of the handset of a standard rotary telephone – worked erratically.

I also stewed over the fact that I knew many of the scientists involved in this experiment. I liked them. Journalists are supposed to be emotionally removed so they can fully represent the public interest and report objectively. In my heart, I realized, I was rooting for the PPPL team.

The reporters covering the event had editors waiting at other ends of the phone line who expected a full-fledged news story as soon as a breakthrough was achieved. We all worked for morning newspapers with tight evening deadlines. As the hours wore on, my colleagues remained calm. In my case, jubilation and tension battled for control of my emotions.  I looked forward to the possibility that the researchers would pull it off and worried about the opposite outcome. I dreaded using my computer. We wondered aloud whether the results would be announced in time for us to report them. To pull off writing such a complex story at the verge of the newspaper’s print deadline, each of us had composed “A matter” – the background material that gives the story context – ahead of time. From time to time, we scurried to different corners of the lobby and worked so that when the news came, all we would need would be the lede (the first sentence or, sometimes, paragraph) and a quote. I, for one, did not want to have to explain the intricacies of a fusion reaction on the fly!

Twice I watched the A-matter I had written on my computer disappear as if the words had been written in smoke. The third version held. Just in time for deadline, as if the research team had been prompted, the scientists achieved their record.

It took me two attempts to successfully send my story over a telephone. The transmission hissed and twanged, my words transferred in stages to bits, electronic pulses and sound waves. The story relayed a remarkable scientific achievement. I knew I had spread the word to hundreds of thousands of readers. Now they would know.

I was exhausted from the cliffhanger evening. I was happy for the scientists.

We made our deadlines. And we all made the front page.

Fusionista

Fusionista Kitta MacPherson is the director of communications at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and an award-winning science writer. 

 

09. December 2013 by Kitta MacPherson
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The Fusionista: PPPL’s MINDS at center of plot in TV’s NCIS-LA

PPPL’s MINDS Team

MINDS_41F

Fusion and its spinoffs are so fascinating, it’s easy to imagine why these subjects can so easily capture the public imagination. Sheldon has been known to talk magnetic fusion on CBS-TV’s The Big Bang Theory and the National Ignition Facility’s inertial confinement laser complex was featured in the recent “Star Trek Into Darkness.”

Now, a technology that engineers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (shown in top photo) developed from basic research, a nuclear detection system called MINDS, has figured at the center of an episode of NCIS-Los Angeles. Episode 8, titled “Fallout,” continued the show’s consistent plot pattern of pitting a crack crew of investigators against evildoers. The show, its title an acronym of “Naval Criminal Investigative Service,” offers a potent brew that combines the genres of police detective story and military drama.  The series premiered on the CBS network in 2009.

Meredith Jacobs, writing about the Nov. 12 episode on examiner.com, an online entertainment news site, reported that a bad guy in the episode accessed a computer at the U.S. Department of Energy and obtained the locations of MINDS devices. “If terrorists knew where those devices were, they’d know where to transport bombs,” Jacobs wrote. The storyline develops to involve stolen federal secrets, international relations with Russia, and a chase to recover computer drives. In the end, the champions of good, the NCIS team, triumph and the secrets of MINDS are secured.

“It is nice to know that MINDS as featured on the NCIS-LA show now joins the ranks of other fusion-related technologies that have appeared in Spider Man, Iron Man, and Star Trek,” said Charles Gentile, who led the development of MINDS at PPPL with a team of engineers and was delighted to hear of MINDS’ television debut. “Clearly the imagination of Hollywood is intrigued with fusion technologies.”

I wrote about MINDS for the first time in 2009 when I worked as the science writer for Princeton University’s Office of Communications. I remember the dramatic story related by the team of how the complex technology was developed over many years. The “Miniature Integrated Nuclear Detection System” (MINDS) was created by the engineers while working on decommissioning the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor, PPPL’s legendary experimental device that produced world records for fusion and high temperatures. After 9/11, the developers of MINDS realized the techniques they had developed for determining the identity and amount of extremely minute levels of elements in TFTR could be used as a defensive measure to detect and identify nuclear materials. The simple, portable device identifies materials through their characteristic energy signals, as unique as fingerprints and is now used in ports and transportation hubs to protect the public.

At the time I was first writing about MINDS, John Ritter, director of Princeton University’s Office of Technology Licensing and Intellectual Property, told me: “This technology may provide a method to protect the public from different kinds of threats. Viewed from that standpoint, we are very excited about MINDS.”

It is also exciting to know that Hollywood gets it, too.

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Fusionista

 

Fusionista Kitta MacPherson is the director of communications at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and an award-winning science writer. 

 

 

13. November 2013 by Kitta MacPherson
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PPPL on the global stage

jg platform

View of the platform that will hold the 10-story tall ITER fusion facility. (Photo credit: John Greenwald/ PPPL Office of Communications)

By John Greenwald

How crucial is PPPL to the worldwide effort to develop fusion as clean and abundant source of energy for generating electricity? The full extent of the Laboratory’s role came home to me this week at the annual meeting for fusion communicators held at the headquarters of ITER, the huge international project under construction in Cadarache, France, to demonstrate the feasibility of fusion energy.

Looking around the meeting room at communicators from the countries that participate in ITER—China, Japan, India, South Korea, Russia, the European Union and the United States—I realized that PPPL has scientific partnerships with virtually all of them. This is true whether the Laboratory is building components and conducting research relevant to ITER, or contributing design and engineering know-how to a next-step fusion facility envisioned by South Korea.

It was thus no coincidence that I happened to bump into PPPL physicists Rob Goldston and Dave Gates in the lobby of ITER headquarters. Both came as members of international groups that provide expert scientific advice to ITER, leaving little doubt that PPPL is a key player in the global quest to develop fusion.

14. May 2013 by Christopher Cane
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PPPL Open House

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Visitors tour PPPL’s National Spherical Torus Experiment during the 2010 Open House. (Photo by Elle Starkman/PPPL Office of Communications).

Mark your calendar and prepare to have some fun at The Princeton Plasma Physics Lab’s Open House on  June 1 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. when the Laboratory will open its doors for the public to see the National Spherical Torus Experiment and other research experiments. Come take a self-guided tours, take part in hands-on activities, watch demonstrations. Plans also include a moon rocks display from NASA, lectures on fusion by PPPL Director Stewart Prager, a cryogenics show, firefighting demonstrations and numerous other activities as well as refreshments and give-aways.

Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory
100 Stellarator Road
Princeton, NJ, 08540
Map

30. April 2013 by Christopher Cane
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A Pleasing Disruption: Fusion equations pop up on popular TV show

FUSIONISTA: FUSION IN POP CULTURE


Above, in a scene from a recent episode of the top-rated CBS TV comedy, The Big Bang Theory, lead character Sheldon, a theoretical physicist, works on an equation describing turbulent diffusion in fusion devices. The equation closely resembles another included in a talk by PPPL physicist Greg Hammett at the Kavli Institute in Santa Barbara (inset left). (Graphic by Greg Czechowicz, PPPL)

Greg Hammett, a physicist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, was minding his own business one recent evening, chilling, watching a TV show popular with Lab folks and many others – the top-rated CBS comedy, The Big Bang Theory (Episode14, titled “The Cooper-Kripke Inversion”.) Suddenly he saw it: Jim Parsons, the actor playing one of the show’s lead characters – a brilliant, though socially awkward theoretical physicist named Sheldon Cooper – was at work in front of a whiteboard. Scrawled across the board in red-orange magic marker were letters and digits representing an idea that Hammett knew quite well. To his great pleasure, Hammett spied an equation he had helped derive in his research on fusion energy. “This equation describes turbulent diffusion in fusion devices and also describes how performance can be improved by sheared flows that can reduce the turbulence,” Hammett said. “The ovals at the bottom of Sheldon’s whiteboard are meant to illustrate this stabilization mechanism – which we are studying as a possible way to improve fusion reactors – and this is an illustration that I’ve used in my talks.” 

Many researchers in the field of plasma physics have contributed to the development of this theory, fondly known to its adherents as “gyrokinetic turbulence theory.” The key people who developed this particular equation as well as the computer simulations backing them, in addition to Hammett, include: Bill Dorland at the University of Maryland; Mike Kotschenreuther, University of Texas; Mike Beer, Johns Hopkins University; and Ron Waltz of General Atomics. Dorland and Beer were former PhD students who worked with Hammett. Kotschenreuther also earned his doctoral degree from PPPL. And Hamid Biglari, who also played a significant role in the development of the turbulence improvement mechanism in this equation, earned his PhD from PPPL. He is now enjoying a prominent career on Wall Street.

PPPL Physicist Greg Hammett

For Hammett, and other fans of The Big Bang Theory at the Lab, it was a thrill to see fusion science touched upon in the show, which often intertwines high-level scientific conversations on topics such as Einstein’s quest for a unified field theory with young adult obsessions such as finding an attractive date for a Saturday night.

Another important Princeton connection is the show’s science writer-consultant, David Saltzberg, a UCLA physicist and Princeton University graduate who ensures that the show’s scientific content – including all equations — is accurate. He obviously is very well read!

Hammett isnt sure exactly where Saltzberg found the formulas and illustrations because they have appeared in many talks he and others have given over the years that are available online, such as a talk Hammett gave in 2005 at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara.

But Hammett is thinking broadly, looking to see whether the fusion strand will be woven into future installments. Late in this episode, the character Sheldon speaks with a colleague about ideas for a new fusion reactor design. He starts to explain an approach for reducing turbulence, one of the major research issues for plasma physicists at the moment, but is interrupted. “I don’t know if we’ll ever learn what brilliant ideas Sheldon had,” Hammett said.

We can always hope!
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Fusionista Kitta MacPherson is the director of communications at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and an award-winning science writer. 

12. February 2013 by Christopher Cane
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At JLab where the nucleus is king

FUSIONISTA: Notes from the landscape of the National Labs

I know I am lucky — part of my job is to occasionally visit my colleagues at other DOE National Laboratories, where I get to meet some of the best scientists in the world and, equally exciting, view their top-notch, one-of-a-kind, supercool equipment.

Earlier this month, I was able to visit Dean Golembeski, director of public affairs at The Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, a place we call “JLab,” mainly so we can converse about it without overly cluttering up our sentences. JLab was kind enough to host a meeting of a group of chief communications officers from all of the DOE’s National Labs.

Like the researchers at PPPL, the scientists at JLab are after big game. Physicists there are exploring the innermost realm of matter — the nucleus of the atom. They think of their work, in the words of accelerator physicist Steve Suhring, as applying a “giant microscope” to nature. Their goal is to discover the origins of matter, improving our understanding of its building blocks and identifying the forces that transform it. It’s a lofty goal and a perfect one for a National Lab, where scientists explore basic research for the good of the U.S. and humanity. But how, precisely, do JLab scientists study something as infinitesimal as a nucleus, located at the center of the atom, a speck in itself?

Allow me to show you how JLab does it.

Here, JLab staff scientist Ari Palczewski explains how scientists construct all the basic elements they need to make their accelerator, including supercold vacuum devices known as “cryomodules” and a giant microscope called Cyclops:

JLab Visit – video

JLab accelerator physicist Steve Suhring gives one of the best descriptions I’ve heard of how an accelerator works, using a mere whiteboard:

JLab Visit – video 2

Scientists at JLab may be peering into the ultrasmall, but they definitely think big.

Here’s a High Resolution Magnetic Spectrometer that uses electrons to examine matter more closely. It’s a whopper, weighing in at 240 tons:

And here is physicist Steve Suhring guiding me and a group of my colleagues deep underground in the long corridor that parallels the accelerator track:

We know that so many of the modern marvels we take for granted — cell phones, MRI machines, cancer medications — would never have existed without fundamental scientific research. Leaving JLab, I find myself grateful for the efforts of everyone there and all of the National Labs, toiling to learn and benefit all.

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Fusionista Kitta MacPherson is the director of communications at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and an award-winning science writer. 

22. January 2013 by Christopher Cane
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The Expanding Palette of Fusion

More from the Fusion Power Associates meeting in Washington, D.C., concluding today:

A self portrait of fusion physicist Glen Wurden (from Los Alamos) taken in infrared wavelengths (3-5 microns), using a new state-of-the art infrared camera (FLIR Systems SC8303HD). This camera was tested on Alcator C-Mod in Sept 2012, and will be used as part of the  American/German collaboration on the new W7-X stellarator under construction in Germany, as a diagnostic to view the protective armor tiles on the vacuum vessel. The armor tiles get heated due to plasma-wall interactions.

06. December 2012 by Christopher Cane
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Of hohlraums and plasmas and machines called “Z”

PPPL Director Stewart Prager described a host of scientific activities at the Lab during a talk at the annual Fusion Power Associates (FPA) meeting held in Washington, D.C. Steve Dean, the executive director of FPA, can be seen to his left. (Photo credit: Kitta MacPherson, PPPL Office of Communications)

By Kitta MacPherson

WASHINGTON, D.C. – What happens when the forces of fusion gather?
At the annual meeting of the Fusion Power Associates, held at the tony Capitol Hill Club in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, there’s lots of talk about “plasmas” and “hohlraums” and of devices called stellarators and other machines with names like “Z.”
Starting yesterday and continuing through today, the leaders of fusion energy research in the U.S. from U.S. Department of Energy-funded laboratories, as well as from industry and publicly funded university programs, have been and will continue to line up and present, in rigorously timed 20-minute-long segments, the state of their art.  Differences in approaches to fusion from inertial confinement where pellets are zapped by lasers to magnetic confinement where a superhot gas is corked in a magnetic bottle are described. As competitive as the programs may be, all are regarded here as being under the aegis of fusion–part of the ecumenical approach of Steve Dean, the founder and executive director of the sponsoring group, the Fusion Power Associates.
The purpose of FPA, a non-profit foundation based in Gaithersburg, Md., is, according to its website, to “ensure the timely development and acceptance of fusion as a socially, environmentally, and economically attractive source of energy.” The meetings are designed to showcase management-level scientists and their technical achievements.
In the long narrow, federal style Eisenhower Room,  an observer in the space of several minutes can hear a full range of approaches to fusion from some of its best minds. Attendees can hear Mike Dunne, a leading scientist at the National Ignition Facility based at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, describe scientific advances in inertial fusion at the facility, pointing to diagrams showing cylindrical capsules called “hohlraums” that hold fusion fuel capsules. One can then listen to Stewart Prager, director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, convey elements of progress in magnetic fusion. The Princeton lab is focusing on areas with breakthrough potential where the U.S. can lead, he said. And lest anyone think that PPPL is overly focused on a doughnut-shaped fusion reactor configuration known as a tokamak, Prager indicated his commitment to also support another configuration known as a stellarator. “We believe that stellarators are not a luxury item, we believe they are essential for fusion,” he said.
Observers at the meeting also can get a taste of the international.
Ned Sauthoff, director of the U.S. ITER program, talked about the importance of scientific research being conducted now to benefit ITER, a mammoth experimental fusion vessel under construction in Cadarache, France. “The science of ITER is happening now,” he said. “In order for it to succeed, you have to have a strong program that is related to things like burning plasmas.” The goal of ITER is to achieve 500 megawatts of fusion power. The giant tokamak is being designed to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility and safety features of fusion energy, Sauthoff said.
Tight budgets for domestic programs have leaders such as Miklos Porkolab, director of MIT’s Plasma Science Fusion Center, expressing concerns. “Vigorous research in the next decade is necessary on existing tokamak facilities with upgrades in heating and current drive power as well as advanced plasma diagnostics and tungsten plasma-facing components,” he said, adding that much physics remains to be explored on existing tokamaks in order to optimize ITER’s operation. The largest U.S. experimental magnetic fusion devices–at MIT, PPPL, and General Atomics–are complementary, he noted, and need sustained support.
In his presentation on fusion experiments at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Glen Wurden said he is worried about the impact of cuts to the domestic fusion program, especially in light of growing ITER commitments, and the survivability of the U.S. plasma physics and fusion research enterprise should there be additional cuts in future years. “We are dangerously approaching the tipping point,” he said.
Mark Herrmann, a physicist at Sandia National Laboratory, who was recognized for his research with an award from FPA, spoke with excitement about his work on a 10,000 square-foot experimental fusion device known as “Z”. “You have to be an optimist to be a fusion scientist,” he said with a smile.

06. December 2012 by Christopher Cane
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Dr. Z weighs in on sun killers

Dr. Michael Zarnstorff
Could a supervillain destroy the sun that gives our planet life? When a writer for the science website Life’s Little Mysteries pondered that question, he turned to PPPL Deputy Director Michael Zarnstorff for his astrophysical expertise. Zarnstorff dismissed such notions as poisoning the sun’s fusion reaction, or siphoning off plasma to make the sun evaporate, as too far-fetched. But he said creating a black hole in the center of Old Sol might conceivably do the trick. To read how that would work, click here: http://www.lifeslittlemysteries.com/2844-star-destroying-superweapon.html
John Greenwald

06. September 2012 by Christopher Cane
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